By  on November 22, 2005

WASHINGTON — Bob Zane, the new chairman of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, has a needs-of-the-many approach to trade policy.

"We have to encourage our legislators to understand that there are far more Americans who wear clothing than are involved in the making of domestic clothing," said Zane, senior vice president at Liz Claiborne Inc.

One of the first issues on Zane's to-do list as chairman is import duties.

"Of all the duties collected during the course of last year, 43 percent pertain to apparel and textiles," he said, citing U.S. Customs & Border Protection figures. "It's crazy. It's ridiculous. It's unfair. Why is it that we're subjecting American consumers to these horrendous penalties?"

The U.S. imported $87 billion worth of apparel and textiles last year, with $8.5 billion in duties levied, making for a rate just below 10 percent, Zane noted. This is much higher than a duty rate of 0.9 percent on all other imports. Goods from many countries enter the U.S. without duties under free-trade agreements and preference programs, while the duty rate on some apparel and textile products from other countries tops 30 percent.

Bringing duties in line with other goods would reduce annual costs to the industry by $7.7 billion, reverberating up the supply chain to produce savings of $27 billion for the consumer, he said.

"We believe the American consumer is paying $27 billion more than [they have] to all because of the excessive duty," Zane said.

Zane has proposed adding apparel and textiles to the 30-year-old Generalized System of Preferences, which needs to be renewed at the end of next year and gives qualifying countries duty-free access to the U.S. Zane argued this would help developing countries in the program and lessen the burden of duties for importers. It is uncertain how much traction the proposal will get, since domestic textile groups see such a move as giving away access to the U.S. market with nothing in return.

"Importers are now well over 90 percent of the products consumed by United States residents," Zane said. "We have to recognize that as being reality and I think we have to deal with it. Imports are here to stay."Zane, 66, helped build up Liz Claiborne's global manufacturing and logistics operations during his decade at the firm. He was promoted to senior vice president in May, overseeing sourcing strategies and advising chairman and chief executive officer Paul Charron on matters of foreign trade and vendor relationships.

One of Zane's biggest hurdles will be convincing members of Congress who represent the estimated 650,000 apparel and textile workers. Those legislators have proved to be willing to go to bat for their constituents, as was seen in recent moves by the administration to restrict Chinese imports.

"There will always be a domestic textile and apparel industry," Zane said. "It's a niche industry. It will exist to service certain circumstances, certain conditions and it's all well and good, but by in large, the bulk of clothing that Americans wear and will continue to wear will be imported."

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